Up and Down, Over and Out, That’s Sinatra (and Tharp)

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times. Charlie Neshyba-Hodges takes the musical's title literally.

  • THEATER REVIEW | ‘COME FLY AWAY’

  • The New York Times: March 26, 2010

The dance floor never clears in the bustling nightclub of “Come Fly Away,” Twyla Tharp’s celebration of the music of Frank Sinatra and the heated urgings behind the love songs he performed with such supple sensitivity.

In this dazzling new dance musical, which opened Thursday night at the Marquis Theater, Ms. Tharp deploys a stage full of brilliant performers to heighten the theatrical allure of ballroom dance, complementing the immortal appeal of Sinatra’s singing with movement that captures the underlying emotional tensions in it. The yearning to connect and the impulse toward flight — those contradictory verities of romantic entanglement — take sharp visceral form in Ms. Tharp’s fast, flashing, remarkably intricate dances.

As the brooding or bouncing voice of Sinatra embraces the dancers in a cool caress — who needs dialogue when the Chairman is on the job? — their arcing legs become both emblems of attraction and defensive weapons. The jutting of a hip can signal seduction, rejection or irritation. A classic ballet pose — the arabesque — is imbued with defiance or delight. Dance is both formal and sensual, tightly structured and wildly abandoned, translating the evolving rhythms of human courtship into eye-popping movement.

Ms. Tharp, who previously created Broadway shows performed to the songs of Billy Joel (the hit “Movin’ Out”) and Bob Dylan (the flop “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”), has been choreographing to Sinatra songs since the 1970s. For “Come Fly Away” she has dipped only lightly into the well of her past work, employing a few celebrated pas de deux, most spectacularly the tempestuous tug of war to the shrugging anthem of survival “That’s Life.” This electrifying encounter occurs midway through the first act, as Hank and Kate, the characters portrayed by Keith Roberts and Karine Plantadit, drop the blithe familiarity of their friendly initial encounter to reveal the grittier truth of their undeniable attraction.

Ms. Tharp takes her cue from the building defiance in Sinatra’s singing to create a charged confrontation between two equals, a man who seeks to possess, and a woman who will not be possessed. Mr. Roberts, his chiseled jaw set and his eyes boring into his partner, flings Ms. Plantadit to the ground and yanks her slowly back up. She plays at submission — curling her astonishing limbs to obey his will — before unleashing her own powers of steely resistance, fiercely contemptuous of the idea that a man can capture a woman’s soul with the grip of a hand.

Continually twisting from his embrace even as she delights in the animal force of their interaction, she gives as good as she gets, and in the end slinks off to prowl for other diversions. The audience, meanwhile, is left agog at both the intensity of the dance and the searing emotion beneath it.

The pas de deux as a flirtatious battle of wills is a recurring theme in “Come Fly Away,” which is structured as a series of romantic encounters in a club vaguely redolent of the 1940s. The set design, by James Youmans, features Deco lines and some kitschy details. The sparkly backdrop is a little trite, and the costumes by Katherine Roth are likewise glossy pastiches of period classics, slick suits for the men and silky wrap dresses for the women. But pop love songs thrive on cliché; it takes singers like Sinatra to rub the polish off them to reveal the eternal truths underneath, and a choreographer like Ms. Tharp (who also directed) to push against the obvious and release new facets of the songs’ energies.

If the show’s visual aspects are never too far from the generic nostalgia of the likes of “Dancing With the Stars” (though nowhere near as tacky, thank heaven), the music and the dancing transcend the familiarity of the milieu. Rather than simply using recorded music, which often has a dampening effect on live dance performances, Ms. Tharp has elected to blend Sinatra’s vocals with live musicians.

It’s a daring choice that works disarmingly well, thanks to the terrific playing of the 19-piece band. The arrangements have been modeled on the original recordings, made by masters like Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, but the live playing adds immediacy and zest. The brass solos, in particular, are performed with thrilling dexterity. A female vocalist performs a few of the songs, and sings along with Sinatra on a couple more.

Although they are given names in the program, the dancers embody archetypes more than specific characters. Mr. Roberts, forcefully masculine but with a fluid line, and Ms. Plantadit, ferocious and leonine, are the warrior-lovers, continually storming off in a fury before being drawn back together by the hard compulsion of their needs.

Clearly they have a long history together, in contrast to the couple portrayed by John Selya and Holley Farmer, strangers who enact a long flirtation that grows deeper and more complex as the evening progresses.

Ms. Farmer’s Babe, in sleek blue silk, has killer legs and a marvelous, inscrutable smile that expresses both a soft welcome and a quiet resistance. Mr. Selya’s showboating seducer, Sid, circles and circles, drawing her into his spell with his spinning-top pyrotechnics. But he captures her full attention when he is dancing by himself, to the elegiac “September of My Years.” Only now does she see in him a depth to equal her own, and in the second act they perform a flinty modernist dance that allows each to retain individuality even as they meld into united musical expression.

In this sequence they are joined by the show’s class clowns, the pertly girlish Laura Mead as Betsy, and the lovable goof Charlie Neshyba-Hodges as Marty. He’s a waiter in the club who takes a shine to the frilled innocent who has somehow wandered in, and their dances are bright exercises in screwball theatrics expressed through astounding acrobatic movement. Mr. Neshyba-Hodges epitomizes the male ballet dancer as sparkplug dazzler, achieving airborne heights as breathtaking as the dives and rolls they lead into.

Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Rika Okamoto are the least cogently defined couple — let’s not bother with their fictive names — but they share an entrancing duet styled as a sensuous nocturnal dream. Mr. Dibble, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, is a wonderfully refined classical technician. It’s a pleasure simply to watch him stretch slowly into an arabesque or conclude a fast spin with a silken finish. (Ticket buyers might want to know that a second cast performs the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.)

In an evening as dance-rich as this, a few flaws are inevitable. Ms. Tharp has rarely been accused of understatement. Some of her recent ballets have been exhaustively busy, and at times “Come Fly Away” pushes its effects a little too insistently. The show’s collective climax — predictably set to “My Way” and “New York, New York” — does not find much fresh dance fodder in these chestnuts. And the humor can be corny, although the sheer charm of Mr. Neshyba-Hodges wins us over, so we are ready to forgive him that third pratfall, and the fourth too.

But these are minor problems in a major new work of pop dance theater, one that reveals fresh dimensions on multiple viewings. (I first reviewed the show in Atlanta last fall.) A sleek, energizing mixture of Sinatra’s inimitable cool and Ms. Tharp’s kinetic heat, “Come Fly Away” sweeps you up in a spell so complete that only those resistant to the seductions of dance or the swing of Sinatra will be left on the other side of the velvet rope.

COME FLY AWAY

Concept and book by Twyla Tharp; vocals by Frank Sinatra; choreographed and directed by Ms. Tharp; sets by James Youmans; costumes by Katherine Roth; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Peter McBoyle; additional orchestrations and arrangements by Don Sebesky and Dave Pierce; original music supervisor, Sam Lutfiyya; music supervisor and music coordinator, Patrick Vaccariello; conductor/pianist, Russ Kassoff; creative consultant, Charles Pignone; resident director, Kim Craven; technical supervisor, David Benken. Presented by James L. Nederlander, Nicholas Howey, W.A.T. Ltd., Terry Allen Kramer, Patrick Catullo/Jon B. Platt, Jerry Frankel, Ronald Frankel/Marc Frankel, Roy Furman, Allan S. Gordon/Elan McAllister, Jam Theatricals, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Margo Lion/Daryl Roth, Hal Luftig/Yasuhiro Kawana, Pittsburgh CLO/GSFD, Spark Productions, the Weinstein Company and Barry and Fran Weissler. At the Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway, at 45th Street (in the Marriott Marquis Hotel); (212) 307-4100. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Come Fly Away, with choreography by Twyla Tharp. While a 19-piece band plays, and Sinatra sings, couples swing in this dance musical at the Marquis Theater. More Photos »

WITH: Alexander Brady (Vico), Matthew Stockwell Dibble (Chanos), Holley Farmer (Babe), Laura Mead (Betsy), Charlie Neshyba-Hodges (Marty), Rika Okamoto (Slim), Karine Plantadit (Kate), Keith Roberts (Hank) and John Selya (Sid).

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